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Monday, August 30, 2010

A Healthier Lasagna

My family eats at least one vegetarian meal a week and generally that meal happens on Mondays so that we can participate in "Meatless Monday." There's actually a nonprofit initiative that's associated with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with this very name. They seek to reduce meat consumption by 15% for the better health of people and the planet. Good idea. The site is and it has lots of great tips and recipes.

So I thought that we'd try a recipe in Rachel Ray's newest Every Day with Rachel Ray (September 2010). Their recipe is called Kinda-Classic Lasagna and it's made a bit healthier by swapping the ricotta for cottage cheese, full-fat mozzarella for the reduced-fat version, and switching meat with mushrooms. I'm a fan of Horizon products, and as far as I know, they don't sell a reduced-fat version of their mozzarella. So I didn't make that swap. Also, the recipe in the magazine called for one cup of cottage cheese and after I'd whipped it up, it seemed a bit of a meager portion for a large lasagna. Finally, the cremini mushrooms were loose and a bit more expensive than white button mushrooms. I was also daunted at slicing so many mushrooms. So I swapped out a full pound of the creminis for a pre-sliced container of white button mushrooms and about 6-8 ounces of creminis. The recipe below shows the switch I made.

Healthier Lasagna

1 tbsp olive oil
olive oil cooking spray
8 oz white button mushrooms
8 oz cremini mushrooms

salt and pepper
1 tbsp chopped, jarred garlic
One 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
Nine 8-inch lasagna noodles
1 cup reduced-fat cottage cheese
1 cup reduced-fat ricotta
2 egg whites
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp finely grated parmesan cheese
6 ounces shredded mozzarella

1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Spray with cooking spray and add half the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and repeat with the rest of the mushrooms.

2. In the same skillet, heat the olive oil and the garlic over medium-low heat and cook for 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir 3/4 cup of the tomato sauce into the mushrooms; season with pepper.

3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large pot of boiling water, cook the pasta as directed. Drain and rinse with cold water.

4. In a blender, puree the cottage cheese, ricotta, egg whites, 1/4 cup of parmesan and season with pepper.

5. Grease a 9" x 11" baking dish and spread 3/4 of the remaining (non-mushroom) sauce in the bottom. Place 3 noodles on the sauce and spoon half the mushrooms on top; dot with half the cottage cheese/ricotta mixture. Top with a 1/3 of the mozzarella. Create a second layer. On the third layer of noodle, top with the remainder of the tomato sauce.

6. Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes. Remove foil and add the remaining mozzarella and parmesan and bake until the cheese melts, about 5 minutes.

It's not necessary to bake the lasagna right away. I made the lasagna and put it into the fridge, covered in foil, until dinner time.

The Verdict: Pretty Good. As the cook, I found the blended cottage cheese mix to be really nauseating to look at and even worse to pour over the layers. I'm happy to report that it puffs up nicely and gives the consistency of regular ricotta cheese. (And by the way, you could just use two cups of cottage cheese, I'm sure. I had half a container of ricotta left over and the cottage cheese looked good the remaining cottage cheese became my afternoon snack.) I think I would have added additional spices to the cooked tomatoes. Next time I'd try some basil, oregano and parsley. But the taste wasn't too plain. And speaking of taste, Amir wasn't having any of the mushrooms. He took two into his mouth, tentatively chewed, then promptly spit them out. But he loved the rest of the lasagna and had seconds...with a pile of cooked mushrooms on the corner of his Lightning McQueen plate.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Healthy Mac & Cheese, Part 2

Leftover night with a twist.

The first twist, which is hardly exciting, is just that Amir ate the Healthy Mac & Cheese with gusto. Not sure about his little friend, but I guess it was the excitement of dinner company that left him uninterested in food that night. For all he knew, it was a homemade version of his favorite. He had no idea that a serving of butternut squash was hidden in there.

My husband ate his bowl unadorned, but I get to report on the second twist: Healthy Mac & Cheese with Balsamic Drizzle and Bacon Bits. I had a package of bacon bits at the house and sprinkled them on my serving. I also topped mine with a tablespoon of balsamic reduction. The recipe for that follows.

Balsamic Drizzle

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp brown sugar

Mix the two ingredients in a small sauce pan and heat over medium-high heat until it boils. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. Reduction should look thick but not syrupy.

The "thick but not syrupy" part is pretty important. If you allow it to cook to the point of syrup, it will continue to thicken when taken off the stove, leaving you with sludge. Not a giant fiasco if that happens--just add tablespoons of water until it becomes syrup again.

Another tip when cooking this recipe: turn on the hood fan and open a window. As the cook, you'll hardly notice the smell of vinegar wafting through your house. Everyone else will fear a chemical spill. And for God's sake, don't lean in and smell your concoction as it cooks. I made the mistake of doing that the first time I made it and probably burned all my nose hair!

When using the reduction for the mac & cheese recipe, a tablespoon will be plenty. The flavor is strong and sweet and will take over the dish. If you have leftovers, it can be kept for a couple of weeks if stored air-tight in the refridgerator. Use it on meats or for a dessert topping. Sliced strawberries with sugared marscapone cheese and a drizzle of the balsamic vinegar comes to mind. Yum!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Macaroni and cheese with butternut squash

My son could eat macaroni and cheese every day of the week.

I try to make it as healthy as possible when we have it for lunch. I choose the boxed versions that are organic whole wheat pasta. And most days, I add peas into it or serve edamame for a side. It's not the worst thing he could eat, but it's certainly my lazy go-to lunch and I know we could do better.

So that got me thinking: maybe I should try a healthy version for dinner? There are a million versions out there. I spent one naptime researching recipes that interested me. The following recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart. I think her recipes are fantastic, but found that it needed a bit of tweaking to work for me.

Healthy Macaroni and Cheese

1 pound frozen butternut squash
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup milk
3/4 tsp coarse salt
pinch of nutmeg
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole wheat elbow macaroni
2 cups of extra sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup part-skim milk ricotta cheese
6 tbsp Parmesan cheese
3 tbsp panko breadcrumbs
1 tsp olive oil
cooking spray

Preheat oven to 375. Thaw the squash in the microwave in a large bowl. When thawed, make sure to squeeze out as much water as possible. In same bowl, mash the squash with the chicken stock, milk, cheddar, ricotta and 4 tablespoons of the Parmesan. Season with nutmeg, pepper and salt. If the mixture seems too soupy, take out a bit of the liquid.

While thawing the squash, cook the macaroni according to package. Drain and add to the squash/cheese mixture.

Spray a 13" x 8" baking dish with cooking spray. Spread macaroni and squash into the dish. In a small bowl, mix the panko breadcrumbs, pepper, the rest of the Parmesan cheese and the olive oil. Spread the breadcrumb mix over the macaroni.

Bake for 20 minutes covered in foil. Remove foil and cook for an additional 20-30 minutes or until browned and crispy.

The verdict: OK. We had invited my friend and her two-year-old daughter over for dinner while her husband was out of town. The kids love to play together and we think that their excitement trumped eating dinner. So neither kiddo ate more than 3 bites a piece. Again, there's a large dish of leftovers, so I'll be interested to see if Amir will like this mac & cheese better without a friend to entertain.

The adults really liked the crunchy topping. My friend recommended adding sage to the top. I agree, but also think a balsamic reduction would be to die for if drizzled on top. I would also suggest bacon bits...though we don't really eat pork in our house. You'll have to add that one yourself and let me know how it goes. On my end, I'll report back how the leftover go over.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pizza emergency


Tonight was supposed to be a healthy version of macaroni and cheese. But the culmination of poor planning and toddler meltdown meant we didn't make it to the store to buy our ingredients. My husband saved the day by picking up a pizza on the way home from Nick's, our favorite local joint. Our toppings were marinated chicken, spinach and mushrooms. Amir, my son, can be pretty persnickety about vegetables, but he gobbled down a large slice by himself. Must be pretty good stuff if he didn't notice the spinach and mushrooms draped all over his slice.

But this dinner fiasco (that tasted pretty darned good anyway) was a reminder that I need to menu plan with a detailed grocery list. My family definitely eats better and saves money the weeks that I'm on top of it. So there's my goal for next week's dinners.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Marinated salmon and cole slaw

Wednesday night dinner was a family favorite. Salmon filets seasoned in a simple marinade with almost homemade coleslaw. I find it really funny that my 2-year-old likes this meal so much as I don't think of salmon or cabbage as toddler-friendly. But it's as successful as packaged macaroni and cheese.

The salmon was frozen packs from Whole Foods. I often find that frozen salmon is a little too gamey for my taste, but these were fantastic--firm texture and not an overpowering taste. The cole slaw is the bagged Dole shredded cabbage and carrot mixture. A bit of a cheat, but still fresh and tasty.

Marinated Salmon

4 salmon filets, about 3 oz. each
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 tablespoon jarred minced garlic (I like Ginger People brand)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine
cooking spray

Marinade the salmon for at least an hour. Once marinated, transfer to a baking dish that's been sprayed with cooking spray. Cook at 375 for approximately 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through.

Cole Slaw

1 bag of prepared cole slaw mix
1/2 cup Light Miracle Whip
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
celery seed

Mix all ingredients in a large serving bowl. Put as much celery seed as desired...if desired at all. Lots of people don't like the strong flavor of celery. Chill for 30 minutes if you have the time; otherwise, it can be brought to the table straight-away. Just remember to refrigerate leftovers.

The verdict? Five stars and two thumbs up. But maybe my family is just weird.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Leftover night and a tomato paste tip

I cooked the shepard's pie in a 13" x 8" baking dish, so it made much more than one meal for a family of three. I think the leftovers could have very easily been frozen; I'm not a huge fan of leftover night and probably should employ the freezing technique. But regardless, it was shepard's pie, part deux tonight.

I did want to share a tip about tomato paste. Unless I'm making tomato sauce, I never use a whole can of tomato paste. Do you? So I used to put saran wrap and an elastic band over the can, stick it in the freezer, and watch it move further and further into the recesses of the shelf. Then, weeks later, there was a tomato science experiment. I also toyed with the squeezable tubes. But still, the paste needs to be used up within a week or two, and I don't know about you, but it seems I don't choose recipes that call for enough tomato paste in a week to use it all.

So I began employing this method: flash freezing tablespoons, then transferring the frozen dollops to a freezer bag. The method is simple. Line a cookie sheet with a piece of wax paper. Dollop tablespoon-ish sized mounds onto the wax paper and freeze the tomato paste until it's set. Then you can transfer the frozen dollops to a freezer bag and they won't stick together in an unbreakable lump. The tomato paste is then good for a long time. And you can just use as much as you need without worrying about fuzzy stuff in your fridge!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Night 1: Shepard's Pie

I hardly see myself keeping up with a blog. I can hardly keep up with things like dusting the picture frames or waxing my eyebrows. But this blog is a food diary of sorts. My family comprises of my husband, 2-year-old son and myself. And while I love to cook and think I'm good at it, not all of my recipes are a big hit with the y chromosomes.

Usher in the blog. I'm hoping to use this as a way to keep track of what we've eaten and what was successful...or not.

Tonight's dinner was Shepard's Pie. As I cooked it, I realized I was whipping up a giant vat of mashed potatoes which is one of my son's least favorite foods. Weird, right? What toddler isn't into mashed potatoes? But it was too late to turn back and a caloric catastrophe to grab a spoon, chow down, and pretend said potatoes never existed. So the pie was on.

The recipe was an amalgam of many different ones I'd peeked at during my kiddo's nap. Here's what I came up with:

4 servings instant mashed potatoes, prepared
1/2 cup sour cream
6 oz shredded cheddar cheese
1 lb ground turkey
2 carrots, diced
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 cup chicken stock
1 can cream style corn
1 cup frozen corn, thawed

Prepare the potatoes as directed. I use Whole Foods brand. Add salt, pepper, the sour cream and half the cheese. Set aside. Meanwhile, cook ground turkey with a little olive oil over medium heat. Remove meat once cooked and set aside. Cook onion, carrot and bay leaf. Add more oil if necessary. Once vegetables are soft, add tomato paste and begin to add some of the chicken stock. Put meat back into the hot pan. Add more chicken stock until mixture is thickened.

Thaw corn in a medium bowl. Add the can of cream style corn to the regular corn and mix.

Put the meat mixture on the bottom of a glass pan. Pour the corn on top of the meat, then carefully spread the potatoes over the corn. I find it's easiest to put globs of potatoes all over the corn, then connect the globs with a spoon. Top with the rest of the cheese. Cook for 15 minutes on 350, then broil on high for 5 minutes until the top gets golden brown.

The verdict: Success.

Not the most gourmet meal, but was surprisingly well-received by the toddler. Apparently it was all that cheese in the potatoes. It made plenty so that tomorrow night will be leftovers.